Rafael Trujillo’s brutal rule over the Dominican Republic ended 51 years ago when he was gunned down on a seaside highway, but his thumbprints still shape this country and its culture.
The Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961, was among the most oppressive in Latin America, marked by massacres of civilians, torture and assassinations of political dissidents and shocking acts of self-adoration.
The capital, Santo Domingo, which Trujillo renamed “Ciudad Trujillo” while he was in power, is marked by his legacy — from the roads and hotels he had built in his honor to the monument that marks the spot where he was assassinated.
For many Dominicans, however, the Trujillo era is little more than a bygone era, his name just a part of their grandparents’ conversations.
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Now, a Dominican tourism organization is attempting to bring the Trujillo era into modern consciousness. The three-hour “Tour of Trujillo’s Last Trip” ( La Ruta del Chivo in Spanish) is designed to educate people about the tyranny and fear under which Dominicans lived while paying tribute to the men and women who opposed Trujillo.
“It was a climate of terror,” said Edwin Aristy, of Raíces, the agency that recently began offering the tour.
Supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Dominican government, the tour is another important step in bringing Dominicans closer to their past, said Luisa de Peña Díaz, director of the Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance, which honors those who stood against the governments of Trujillo and Joaquín Balaguer, who followed him.
The tour, which was launched in June, takes passengers to eight spots in the city in well-preserved cars from the 1950s and 1960s.
“We want this tour to be able to show the youth of this country, particularly, what this time was like so they don’t repeat the same mistakes,” Aristy said.
The tour begins at the two-story Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance where the most startling reminder of the brutality of the era is a dank underground room that houses the electric chair in which many dissidents were tortured.
“A country that fails to reflect — that never has a catharsis — fails to accept the crimes as part of its public consciousness,” said Peña, whose father was killed in 1967 for opposing the Balaguer government. “It becomes a country that does not know its path” to democracy.
Stops along the tour take visitors to monuments and a mausoleum erected to honor the resistance movement, and to the buildings where Trujillo lived a lavish lifestyle.
The national library, for instance, was once his residence, complete with a movie theater, skating rink, ample gym and enough closet space to house his 10,000 neckties and the fruits of his excessive buying sprees in New York.
The tour concludes at the monument erected at the bend in the highway where Trujillo was killed in a shootout. Although several opposition groups had organized against him, Trujillo was ultimately killed in a plot that involved several of his own men.
The plot was aided by the CIA in an about-face for the U.S. government, which had long supported the dictatorship.
Trujillo’s killing was memorialized in a famous merengue song, “They killed the goat,’’ a nod to Trujillo’s code name, “ El Chivo.” Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa borrowed the name when he wrote the novel, The Feast of the Goat, about Trujillo’s last day. It was later made into a movie.
The monument marking the sight is a stirring abstract sculpture depicting one of the victims of the electric chair.
Despite its importance, the monument is rarely visited today. Barriers block the parking lot, and bottles and plastic bags have accumulated.
For Aristy, it’s another sign that the collective memory is fading.
“I fear that we’re at a point where we need to reclaim this time for the young people,” Aristy said, “or else we’ll lose it.”
During his 31-year rule, Trujillo turned the country into a shrine to himself, constructing 37 residences and creating national holidays to honor his birthday and date of his inauguration.
He had more than 1,800 busts of his likeness placed in public places. Within their homes and businesses, Dominicans were expected to display Trujillo’s photo and placards with sayings such as “God and Trujillo are my faith.”
They were also expected to eavesdrop on their neighbors and report suspicious activity. Trujillo’s notorious secret police patrolled streets in black Volkswagen Beetles.
Nonconformists were jailed, abducted, tortured and killed. In the most brazen cases of public terror, Trujillo ordered the bodies of murdered opponents paraded through the streets.
How Trujillo rose from humble beginnings to become the pivotal figure in Dominican history is worthy of examination, said author Julia Alvarez. Her historical novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, traced the lives of the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were killed for opposing Trujillo.
“It’s important for us to know our history and examine what in our culture and civic habits helped create favorable ground for these dictatorships. He is not the first and he wasn’t our last,” said Alvarez, whose family fled the Trujillo dictatorship for the U.S. in 1960.
Alvarez said young Dominican Americans read her novel and tell her “they had no idea.”
“Any way to bring history alive to young generations who did not live it but who have inherited that legacy in bad habits of thinking and acting and being a citizenry is important — be it a novel, or a film, or a ruta [tour],” she said.